Estd. Since 1905

CHINTAMANI KAR

No Comments

I’ve said this before, and I don’t mind saying it again, the G.C. Laha establishment is like a pilgrimage for artists. Many artists these days might not understand why I’m saying this. It’s not surprising that they can’t. After all, they are still young while I’ve just stepped into my 91st year. In my long life as an artist, my connections with G.C. Laha, too, goes back a long time. It is on the basis of this experience that I call the place a pilgrimage for artists.

My journeys to the shop began even before I had become an artist. It was possibly in the year 1928. I was in school and completely addicted to painting at that time. I would stay up for nights on end and draw, going against the will of my family. It was during that time that I became acquainted with a boy from our neighborhood. He was a student of the Indian Art School and used to paint. I can’t remember his name anymore. But I went up to him to find out from whom I could take training in art. He told me of a good book on learning painting written by V.R. Foster had been published abroad. it contained detailed and illustrated instructions on the art of painting. The book, he told me, was available at G.C. Laha.

That was the first time I went to G.C. Laha — to buy a book. And that was the first time I saw Girinbabu. His full name was Girindra Coomar Laha, and it was after him that the shop was named G.C. Laha Private Limited. As soon as I named the book, he asked one of his men, Nandababu, to fetch it. I leafed through the book and found that it had instructions on drawing everything from trees and leaves to birds, beasts and humans. To begin properly, I also bought myself an exercise book with thick sheets of paper to draw in. By then I realised that I needed pencils, but I had no clue about the type of pencils I would require. When I asked, Nandababu got me a 2B and a 6B pencil on the instructions of Girinbabu. He told me that I would need the 6B pencils to draw dark, black lines. Inevitably, after drawing for a few days I wanted to start painting, but then, I didn’t know what colours I would require to paint. So there I was, back at the G.C. Laha shop at Dharamtalla. I asked for cheap water colours and as usual, Girinbabu handed me a box of water colours and said, “Start off with these. I’ll give you tube colours later.” So I had finally got myself the colours, but now there were the brushes to buy. I couldn’t even think of buying good brushes, which were very expensive. So I asked for a cheaper variety. But I had no idea of what were the numbers I would require. However, Girinbabu was there to solve all my problems. He passed me a number 1 and a number 3 sable-hair brush and said, “These will suffice for now. I’ll give you other varieties when you need them.” With that in mind, I went home and started painting pictures. So this is how I began painting — not with training from a teacher, but with help from Girinbabu and with materials from his shop.

Even before I sat for my Matriculation exams, plans to put me into a medical school were afoot at home. But I didn’t agree to it at all, since I wanted to join an art school and become an artist. To have my way, I even ran away from home and faced many hardships. Finally, one day my father agreed to let me enroll in an art school. I couldn’t join the Government Art School on Chowringhee, as the students had gone on a strike and the school was closed. This was around 1930. Hindusthan Building was in the Dharamtalla area, close to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. The office and the school of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, established by Abanindranath Tagore, was on the second floor of this building. I joined there.

I wanted to learn sculpture and the sculpture teacher at the Society in those days was Giridhari Mahapatra. He was a skilled artisan trained in the old traditions of temple architecture in Orissa. I started training under him. Once he gave me a block of wood and said, “Cut this.” He didn’t tell me what figure he wanted me to carve out of the wood. When I asked him, he said, “Nothing. Just keep chipping off from it.” I began on his instructions and after some time it became so small that I couldn’t hew it further even pressing it down with my foot. When I finally asked him about this he said, “You’re even better than me at this. What will I teach you?” Anyway, one day he told me that it would take 14 to 15 years to learn sculpture. I was very disheartened and I walked up to the painting teacher Kshitindranath Majumdar and explained my predicament to him.

He took me in as his pupil and I started learning to paint with water colours under him. I would use Monkton Kent paper for my drawings.

In those days each sheet of paper used to cost about four or five annas. But Kshitin babu did not like the paper. He advised me to buy Watman handmade paper; from G.C. Laha. Each Watman sheet used to cost a rupee then. I was just a student f and in no way I could buy such expensive paper. Finally I managed to save up 1 enough money to buy the paper from G.C. Laha after three months.

There’s another reason why I call G.C. Laha’s shop a pilgrimage. Most artists frequented the shop since they had no equal in terms of area anywhere in Kolkata. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing many great artists here and even meeting some of them. One day I saw this huge man, built like a wrestler, enter the shop. When I inquired I was told that he was the famous sculptor and painter Debiprasad Roy Choudhury. I had seen his work printed in the magazines [Prabasi] and [Bharatvarsha]. Telling him this, I bent down and touched his feet in respect. From then to the last day of his life, my relationship with him remained intact. It was here that I met other greats like Atul Bose, Satish Singha and Hemen Majumder and many others.

I can remember many such incidents. Let me share a few with you. Once, when I’d gone to buy colours from the shop, I saw Hemen Majumder. He was talking to Girinbabu. There was something he was feeling a bit hesitant about. Girinbabu assured him that there was no need for him to feel reticent, he could say whatever he wanted to. Relieved, Hemenbabu revealed that he required a Roman canvas, but didn’t have the money. The size he needed was 30/20. Girinbabu asked Nandababu to check if that particular size was available. After some time Nandababu said that there was a 36/24 available. When Girinbabu asked this to be handed over to Hemenbabu, he said, “As it is I don’t have money, if I take lager size, it’ll be even costlier.” To this Girinbabu replied, “Don’t worry about the price, we’ll see about that later. By the way, do you have paint and brushes?” A bit ashamed, Hemenbabu said, “I normally use Artist Quality paints, but these have been finished a long time ago. The brushes have mostly lost their shape with use.” Hearing this, Girinbabu handed the artist six tubes of Artist Quality Paints and brushes numbered 1, 2 and 3.

Later I’ve even seen Girinbabu giving away Mastic varnish to Hemendranath Majumdar, knowing fully well the artist didn’t have money to buy for it.

Hemenbabu had painted a beautiful portrait of Girinbabu’s wife. So, whenever he mentioned money after buying things from the shop, Girinbabu would smile and say, “I owe you some money for painting that portrait. Just take whatever you require, please don’t hesitate.” There are other incidents like this which I can never forget. Here, at G.C. Laha, I’ve seen what a wonderfully cordial relationship Girinbabu shared with many greats of the art world.

I returned to Calcutta from foreign shores in 1956 and joined as a professor at the Government Art School. As soon as I took charge, I put into place some new rules for the improvement of the school, administering the institution according to some regulations and for this, I was named the Army Commander. One of the teachers there was Gopal Ghosh. It so happened that one day I found him in the school garden, observing a flower with great attention. When I went forward and asked him what it was, he revealed that he was actually observing an insect sucking nectar from the flower. Why didn’t he paint it, I asked him. He replied, “I don’t have paint, brushes or paper.” I told him to go to G.C. Laha on Dharamtalla Street. I would telephone them and ask them to arrange for all that he required. As soon as I called them, it was all made ready. So, after remaining static for a while, Gopalbabu’s brush began working on the canvas again. And it was at this time that he worked on his famous flower series. So G.C. Laha had a crucial role to play in bringing Gopalbabu back into the world of painting.

After Girindra Coomar Laha, Bishwababu (Bishwanath Laha), his eldest son, became the overall boss of the shop. I was on friendly terms with him and we would discuss so many things over the phone, as well as when we met up. Even he left us for his heavenly abode one day. Since then, his brother Pashupatibabu too has been a good friend — in fact I still have Watman sheets I brought from their shop, though some have been used up. Whenever I look at them, many fond memories come to mind and I feel very nostalgic about the place. There’s another thing which many might not know. The beautiful brasswork railing on the shop counter was actually gifted by the Winsor & Newton company. After all, right since its inception, the shop has sold the products of this world famous brand. This is a matter of great pride. I offer my best wishes to this great organisation of the Bengalees in its centenary year.

GANESH HALOI

No Comments

For me, 1, Dharamtalla Street has been a known address ever since I stepped into adolescence. Our ancestral home was in Bangladesh. We hail from Jamalpur, a small sub-divisional town by the Brahmaputra in Mymensingh district.

Many of us were into writing poetry and short stories and there were discussions over whose worked we liked the most. Together, we brought out a hand-written magazine called [Kallol]. Apparently, I was the best with the illustrations, so the responsibility for doing the pictures inevitably fell on me. In those days I used only a pen and ink to work. I knew only about water colours, oil paints didn’t even exist for me. It wasn’t easy travelling to Kolkata in those days. The stories of Kolkata we heard seemed like tales straight out of Aladdin’s magic lamp. Those who lived and worked in Kolkata went home only during festivals. I arranged for my paints and brushes through one of these infrequent travellers. But however much I tried, I couldn’t mix them with water. For someone like me it was a matter of great surprise. Finally I found “Student oil colour” written on the tubes and realised that these weren’t water colours. My reason for going into this story is that I still remember that the envelope in which the brushes had come into my hands had `G.C. Laha Pvt Ltd. Leading Artists Colourmen 1, Dharomtala Street, Calcutta-13′ inscribed on it.

This address was one of the most significant discoveries in my life. Often I would sit by the river and paint, and my journey began with the box of colours that came into my hands by post.

In 1950 my family had to pay the price for Partition. We floated around from camp to camp — bearing the title of refugee against our name. But I never stopped painting. I would still get my paper for doing water colours from G.C. Laha. Then in 1951, I joined the Government Art College. My coming to Kolkata is part of a fascinating history, but it was through this journey that I got acquainted with G.C. Laha’s shop.

Whenever I think of this acquaintance the person I remember first is Pashupatibabu. He had nobility written all over his face and I would be fascinated by the man. And it was a nobility plain to the eye even in his old age. They were three brothers, the others were Bishwanath and Loknath. More often than not, Pashupatibabu would sit at the front counter. Behind him sat the accounts keeper Charubabu. Nandababu and Hemantababu, both to the right of him, were always busy with the various demands of the customers. Among them, Nandababu was always liked by the customers for his friendly behaviour. When there was a crisis of imported paints, he would hunt out the Davidocks paper, water colour cakes and tubes.

I took up a job and went away to Ajanta, but even there I would get my paint, paper and brushes from G.C. Laha by V.P.P. post. But I would never have to send any advance for this, I would just pay up later. In those days , that is before G.C. Laha was established, there were many big shops selling materials for industrial paints and draftsmanship. But there weren’t any shops for just artists. After appearing for the entrance exams from Calcutta University, Girindra Coomar Laha joined his father Akshay Coomar Laha’s shop of industrial and domestic paints. Then in 1905, at the age of just 16, he started the famous G.C. Laha Pvt Ltd in his own name. Even today the name stands for dependability to artists. Whenever one wants to buy goods of high quality, G.C. Laha and Aukhoy Coomar Laha’s name spring first to mind. Girindra Coomar shared a cordial relationship with famous artists like Raja Ravi Varma, S.G. Thakur, Percy Brown, Abanindranath, Nandalal, Ranada Prasad Bagchi and Hemen Majumadar. It was the same way with me and Pashupatibabu. I’ve been to their house a number of times and it was there that I first saw an original work by Hemenbabu. G.C. Laha would bring out its calendar by printing the works of these well-known artists. Pashupatibabu would say that Hemenbabu would paint with his wife as the model. Such beauty is seldom seen in Bengali families.

They were the first in West Bengal to organise a sit-and-draw contest for children. In his early years even Satyajit Ray was deeply connected with this. He would act as a judge. Later on, many of us also became involved with these efforts. The judging was mostly done either in G.C. Laha’s house, at the Government Art College or at the house of their relatives. Through this initiative I became acquainted with Pranab Chandra Daw. In that year over 2,000 pictures had been brought to his house to choose the winners from. Pranabbabu was the husband of Pashupatibabu’s youngest niece, Monika. I gradually came to Pranabbabu better. Durga Puja was held every year in their ancestral house at Jorasanko. Pranabbabu was a member of the Rabindra Bharati Society. It was through his initiative that in 1990 I managed to get almost 36 works of Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath the Tagore, Kshitindranath Majumdar, Sunayani Devi for the Bengal Artforms exhibition held to commemorate Kolkata turning 300 years old. So here again, G.C. Laha had an important role to play in this. I wish all success to this pioneering institution tha.r has sabided through three generations.

ROBIN MONDAL

No Comments

I can’t remember the exact date now. But just after passing the Matriculation exams in 1947, when I was preparing to join art school, I became eager to get myself some materials to start painting. I had no clear idea as to exactly where I would have to go to get various things like paper, pencils, colours, brushes etc. Earlier I had collected the materials for painting from other people, but this time round my research revealed that the famous G.C. Laha at Dharamtalla was a shop just for artists and I would get all the material I required under that one roof.

Before I came to know of G.C. Laha, the only other such shop known to me was Competitive Stores, a big stationery shop at Howrah Maidan that mostly served the needs of the indigenous and foreign residents of the railways’ Colvin Court. I bought my first box of Winsor & Newton water colours from here with a few rupees given to me by my father. At that time this box was like a treasure trove for me. When I would stay home due to an illness, this box of colours became my constant companion. But when I recovered my health and craved to join art school, G.C. Laha became the chief target of my explorations. I still remember the first time I stood in front of this shop, it was revealed to me in a new light, giving it a unique and distinct appearance in my eyes.

The shop decorations — such as the railings above the shop counter — and the people I saw there were presented to my eyes as if they possessed an extra dimension. I couldn’t find any similarity with any of the shops I had seen before in the city. The brass railings meant something more than just what they really were. After all, no shops I had seen earlier had anything like them.

Pashupatida at the counter was a handsome young man, while I was at the end of my adolescence. At the counter on the right side sat Nandada, though I got to know their names much later. I remember, when I entered the shop I had to think a while about whom I could approach and discuss my requirements with. The walls were covered with advertisements and Winsor & Newton posters. In spite of my initial hesitation, I gradually became familiar with Pashupatida and Nandada.

At times even Pashupatida’s brother would sit at the counter. But I never got the scope to speak to him much. Much later Pashupatida’s youngest brother (Loknath Laha) would also sit at the counter. Pashupatida would converse with everybody very easily and he was fully aware of the world of arts and artists of Kolkata. He also knew who the really talented artists were. I personally feel that if Pashupatida were to write on this topic it might actually reveal unique facets of these artists and give the reader an insight into their beings. There was not a single well-known artist who was not acquainted with the people at G.C. Laha.

In other shops the relationship with the customer is confined only to buying and selling, whereas at G.C. Laha the bonds with the artists were much more intimate —something which the artist remembers fondly even after years have passed.

Whenever we have sought their help regarding any matter pertaining to the art world of Kolkata, we have always received the best help possible. I remember when we held the Calcutta Art Fair close to New Market at the Corporation ground in 1970, Pashu-patida came ahead to help us. Even in other matters, their help is unforgettable.

But the experience which has never stopped impressing itself upon me is seeing the brass railings in the shop facade. They stand out like the vestige from a shop a bygone England.

BIPIN GOSWAMI

No Comments

People will always remember G.C. Laha when they talk about the history of art in India and its story goes back a hundred years. Nowadays we see so many shops selling goods to artists. Their relation with the artists is limited to only buying and selling. But in the case of G.C. Laha this was a relationship that was much more intimate. And it has still endured in spite of the many changes over the past hundred years. We have also changed in order to keep pace with the changing times. According to the law of nature, we too have reached a crucial age in our lives. In order to survive, some have travelled far and wide on work, others have•chosen Kolkata for providing the inspiration for their work. But wherever we have gone, we haven’t been able to forget the enthusiasm of Pashupatibabu of G.C. Laha. Moreover, in many corners of India, whenever we have sat down to discuss art among our contemporaries or seniors, the name of G.C. Laha has always been mentioned.

 Though I’ve spent a number of years outside Kolkata on work, whenever I remember my student years, I think about a wonderful relationship with this shop. In the Fifties we were the students of the Government Art College. As soon as the bell signalling the end of classes rang, we would set out in groups for G.C. Laha’s art and crafts shop. In those days the pavements were not this crowded with vociferous buyers and sellers. We would walk down the even pavements, taking in the beautiful greenery, and passing the delectable aroma wafting out of Firpo’s, past the Indian Museum, we would finally reach the tram tracks crossing on Dharamtalla Street. In front of us would be the shop. Behind a huge, majestic table sat Pashupati Laha, our Pashupatida. On top could be seen the shining railings that signified tradition. Even now I can remember the lovely relationship that we shared with the great man. We would purchase various paints, brushes, paper and other arts materials and being regaled by Pashupatibabu’s charming words, we would set off for our homes. After finishing college, I started teaching at the Indian Art College in 1957. That again was a different experience. I had the pleasure of working with famous teachers like Somnath Hore, Gopal Sanyal, Arun Bose, Sukanta Bose, Satya Sevak Mukherjee, Sudhir Maitra, Suhas Ray and others. After classes got over we would congregate at the Kamalalay stores for our round of evening discussions. Then we would walk down to our old haunt of G.C. Laha and after purchasing the required goods, we would set off for home.

In those days, we know only Winsor & Newton as the manufacturer of good paints and brushes. And G.C. Laha was the only distributor of this famous company. Many artists were not very well-off and they would have to paint and sculpt with the spectre of poverty looming large over them. They didn’t even have any patrons and in general, there was complete indifference towards artists. In those lean years, it was G.C. Laha that came forward to help them. Many artists have remained devoted to their work with such unconditional help from this organisation and have become established in the world of Indian art later on

G.C. Laha has stepped into its hundredth year and I wish them all-round. well-being.         

SHANU LAHIRI

No Comments

There was a time when I would go to G.C. Laha with my Government Art College friends two to three times every week. It wouldn’t feel normal if we didn’t go. We’d pick up various odds and ends — sometimes two brushes, or paper, or some Chinese ink, canvas and other such stuff. During our tiffin break at art school, it was either G.C. Laha or Park Street, which was like Paris for us.

 And it wasn’t just buying materials — we’d make it a point to fight with Nandababu for some time. We’d even irritate Pashupatibabu and Loknathbabu — but most if our arguments were with Nandababu, who would pack our stuff for us. The most endearing quality about the shop was the behaviour of its people. I’ve never seen them behave differently with different people, whether young or old. It’s true that three or four of us would bother them a lot, but then they would also be really happy to see us. At times Nandababu would say something utterly objectionable: “Why don’t you go to the adjacent shop? You’ll get things cheaper there.” We wouldn’t pay him any attention, after all, we never went to any other shop. At times, I remember how they would get the paints we wanted and keep them with care. For example, oil would require a lot of white colour, but it wasn’t always available. But Nandababu would keep it separately for us — many times I’ve seen school students, who have just began working in oil, come and ask for huge supplies of white colour. But they were not given more than one portion. Nandababu would say that more often than not, the kids would lose interest after some time, but if they really needed more they would come back again. But those who painted regularly would require the white colour more often. So it was essential to keep the colour for them or they would find it very hard to get regular supplies. This just shows that it wasn’t just about selling colours, through it they actually reached a higher state of mind.

The colours which weren’t easily available were stowed away in a first-floor chamber upstairs. Pashupatibabu or Nandababu would just have to give the order and the colours would be brought downstairs one by one. Though I haven’t been there for a long time, I’m sure the small wooden stairs are still there. Often, I really felt like going up the stairs. Once I did go with Nandababu’s permission. The stairs were really unique — it was quite difficult to go up them. Behind the counter were kept the paints, brushes and board pieces, while the superior-quality paper, the costly colours, pastel paper, canvas paper were kept on the left side. We’d ourselves choose the paints and colours from the drawers — my children too have gone with me so many times. Many from the art school had permission to go inside, and even though we fought, the shop doors were always open for us.

Nandababu suffered from a bad ailment — the veins of his legs had become inflated and knotted by standing for hours on end. Pashupatibabu would take a lot of care of him. And once we left art school, our fights, too, got over — all of them became great friends. One fine morning I saw the news of Nandababu’s death in The Statesman. There was a wonderful piece on him. I felt really sad reading this bit of news. All the Laha brothers were such gentlemen — and they still are so — that they behaved extremely well with their employees. In turn, the employees too behave very nicely with the customers — something that is extremely rare these days.

The paint of the shop are well-known across India. So many famous persons procured their art materials from here — Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath, Nandalal Bose, Jamini Ray, Hemen Majumdar, Atul Bose — I’ve heard such a lot about them. Later on it was the likes of Ramen Chakraborty, Pradosh Dasgupta, Chintamani Kar, Paritosh Sen, Nirod Majumdar, Gopal Ghosh — and it also includes the famous faces of this generation. Even people from outside Calcutta would come here to buy their materials.

I still remember how surprised I felt when I first went to a famous Parisian art shop to buy paints. As soon I entered it felt like I had walked into a larger version of G.C. Laha. It smelt the same inside — a bit must” and old — and even the decorations were similar. There was a small poster to the left of the entrance, or there was an exhibition going on and people were sitting around and one had to enter being careful that one didn’t in the way. I really liked the ambience. Even here famous painters would come to buy colours and it’s still the same. But whenever I go to G.C. Laha in Kolkata — though it’s a bit of a problem going there now since some people recognise me -I feel as if I have come back to my own place. G.C. Laha evokes wonderful memories of art school but I still miss the presence ofthe Laha brothers and Nandababu.